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Tech entrepreneur aims to take digital skills to refugees

Tech entrepreneur Emma Sinclair hopes to raise £150,000 to run an education programme for displaced young people in a Unicef programme that aims to develop skills that might otherwise be lost

A United Nations Childrens’ Fund (Unicef) campaign to bring digital skills education and entrepreneurship coaching to displaced people around the world is aiming to raise £150,000 to fund its Innovation Lab concept in the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, home to over 650,000 refugees from the devastating Syrian civil war.

Lead by Emma Sinclair, founder of EnterpriseJungle, the company behind the EnterpriseAlumni corporate alumni community management platform, the campaign has its roots in a £10m Unicef programme to develop untapped entrepreneurial skills in hard-to-reach and underprivileged parts of the world.

Serial entrepreneur Sinclair, who became the youngest person to float a company on the London Stock Exchange at the age of 29, has already helped to spearhead work in Malawi and Zambia on behalf of Unicef.

She is now helping the organisation fund an enhanced digital lab at Azraq to develop tech skills such as coding, engineering, creative media and social innovation, as well as softer business skills such as problem identification and solving, teamwork and critical thinking.

Before the Syrian civil war – which began in 2011 during the Arab Spring protests that toppled the governments of Egypt and Tunisia and also led to ongoing wars in Libya and Yemen – Syria had been a comparatively thriving and well-educated Middle Eastern society. Six years on, well over a million children who would otherwise have been in school have now been forced to flee the warzone with their families.

While providing refugee camps in Syria’s neighbouring countries with clean water, food and medicine is the priority for the UN and other aid agencies, education is at risk of being forgotten in the struggle to meet basic needs. “We are talking about millions of kids without the ability to fulfil their potential – it’s an economic crisis, and an innovation and talent crisis,” Sinclair told Computer Weekly.

“There’s an unfathomable amount of people out of school through no fault of their own who are going to need to move on and live their lives,” he said. “If they have digital skills, whatever country they end up in, they will have the ability to support themselves because these are transferable skills.”

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Sinclair said she was partly motivated to support Unicef’s project because of the number of famous names in the world of science and technology who were displaced at one time, and who might never have been able to contribute to global society if they had languished in refugee camps with little to no support.

These include names such as Google’s Sergey Brin, whose family was forced to leave the Soviet Union in the 1970s; physicists Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi, both of whom fled Europe in the 1930s to escape the rise of fascism; and UK IT industry pioneer and diversity advocate Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley, who came to Britain aged six on the Kindertransport, which saved 10,000 Austrian, Czech, German and Polish children from the Holocaust.

Innovating from scratch

During a number of visits to Azraq, Sinclair has explored some of the work Unicef has already been conducting with the young people living there, and found that the entrepreneurial spirit is a truly universal one.

“These kids are as ambitious as I was and they’re stuck in a desert with nothing,” she said. “They’re not being given an opportunity to try to continue their education.”

Because access to computing equipment and the wireless and broadband networks needed to support its optimal use is still highly constrained at Azraq, many of the children Unicef is helping on the ground are innovating from scratch, using whatever materials they can get their hands on.

The next killer-app has not emerged (yet), said Sinclair, because everyday concerns trump IT for now – something that the ongoing funding for the Innovation Lab will potentially change.

Virtual reality

However, there are still lots of ideas bubbling to the surface, even without the benefit of on-site IT. For example, Mohamad, aged 16, created a pair of virtual reality glasses to help bring everyday education to life for younger children.

“The glasses help build education in the camp,” he said. “You can tell someone about a lion but they don't know what it is. But then they can see it moving in the glasses and they can learn and understand.”

His twin brother, Abdelmajeed, built a projector using a cardboard box and a smartphone to combat boredom. “I want to be an innovator like Edison, who created the lightbulb,” he said. “I want to leave a personal print on the world like he did.”

Skills and knowledge trading system

Meanwhile, 15 year-old Khaldyeh used her time at the Innovation Lab to create a water filtration system using nothing more than two buckets, a strainer, some cotton and some stones. She said participating in the project had boosted her own self-esteem after years of uncertainty.

“I used to be shy but now I am confident. It is separate to my education,” said Khaldyeh. “The centre gives me courage and confidence. I enrolled to get ideas out of my head and turn them into something real.”

Some of the other teens enrolled in the programme created a skills and knowledge trading system for camp residents called Time Bank, which matches people together to essentially barter their existing skills for something they might need – cooking for cleaning, for example.

Time Bank co-creator Abdullah, aged 18, said: “We chose Time Bank because we saw problems in the camp. All of us have lots of free time each day. People need job opportunities and they don’t have enough money to meet their needs. We want to help and we need to be innovative.”

At the time of writing, the crowdfunding effort had just passed the £50,000 mark on its way to a hoped-for £150,000 goal. This means it has already raised enough to equip and run the Azraq Innovation Lab for one year, but there is much more still to be done, said Sinclair.

Just £35 can train a young person in social innovation, while £100 can coach and mentor a young person as they develop an idea, £1,200 can train four people in creative media, engineering and coding, and £10,000 can provide seed funding for a future product or business.

“These kids hope that one day they’ll be the generation that rebuilds Syria, and technology will help them rebuild the country they love,” said Sinclair.

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